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Scrunchies Are Cool Again. Hair's How They Staged A Comeback

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A surprising number of cultural themes brought the scrunchie its new mass appeal — boosted by an Internet teen subculture.
Mhari Shaw, NPR

A surprising number of cultural themes brought the scrunchie its new mass appeal — boosted by an Internet teen subculture.

Georgie Williamson's first scrunchie moment came the day she was born. In 1989 her mother was in labor, wearing a black velvet scrunchie with a bow. And the daughter grew up a believer — "a scrunchie gal," as she puts it.

For much of her adult life, this was an untrendy choice. The scrunchie became so uncool by 2003 that the zeitgeist TV show Sex And The City devoted a whole plotline to it: "No woman who works at W Magazine and lives on Perry Street would be caught dead at a hip downtown restaurant wearing a scrrrrunchie," asserted protagonist Carrie Bradshaw.

And so Williamson learned to laugh it off when friends kept giving her obnoxious scrunchies as a joke. "Joke's on them," she says, "because I end up using them."

But lately Williamson, now 30, has noticed something odd in her spin class: other women sporting scrunchies. Cue a low-stakes emotional roller coaster: "I'm not a trendy person," she says. "Do people think I'm trying to be trendy? Oh no. Am I not cool enough to be wearing a scrunchie now?"

In the past year, scrunchies sold eight times faster than the overall category of hair accessories and styling products, according to Goody, one of the oldest scrunchie brands. "Scrunchies Are 2019's Biggest Fashion Trend," announced a recent headline in Teen Vogue.

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How does something so profoundly rejected by the fashionistas get to reclaim its cool? A surprising number of cultural themes brought the scrunchie its new mass appeal — boosted by an Internet teen subculture.

It's the perfect timing for the revival of '90s fashion, says Tessa Maffucci, who teaches fashion design at Pratt Institute. Enough time has passed for the original wearers to feel nostalgic for the trend, and for the younger shoppers to discover it for the first time.

Sara Radin, who wrote the unofficial scrunchie history for Teen Vogue, traced the accessory's origin to a lounge singer in the late 1980s who wanted something to pull back her big poofy hair without damaging it while she played piano.

Today, that functionality and comfort speak to the modern generation of fashionistas. And for many designers, scrunchies now appeal as a good way to recycle or reuse fabric.

Add to that many women who have veered toward minimalist makeup, and "hair accessories are now I think more and more an important component of a look," says Marina Binichis Feldman, an executive at Goody's parent company Beauty By Imagination.

The scrunchie has been showing up on runways, celebrities and influencers. A huge scrunchie news cycle started when singer Lizzo posed backstage at MTV's Video Music Awards in a sky-high side-pony held up by a bejeweled $100 scrunchie, said to have 5,000 hand-applied rhinestones.

Even long-haired dudes got in on the trend. Aquaman actor Jason Momoa wore a pink scrunchie to the Oscars, along with a blush-pink suit whose design was based on another scrunchie he showed off in a YouTube video: "One of our hair stylists ... gave this to me — I freaked out because it was beautiful."

As word of my scrunchie story spread, women kept telling me one more, simple truth about the bulky scrunchie's superiority to thinner elastic bands: It's gentler on hair. This especially aligns with today's growing focus on healthful hair care and the natural-hair movement.

"Those of us with curlier, coarser, kinkier hair have to think about the textures and materials that interact with our hair because it's more prone to breaking," says Khalon Richard, product manager at NPR. "So when I saw that there are scrunchies now coming out in silk, I was very excited about that."

Fitness studio manager Renata Kleifgen put her praise for the scrunchie directly: "When I pull it out, I don't see clumps of hair coming along with it."

But this gentleness didn't change in the years when the scrunchie fell out of fashion. So who decided scrunchies were now cool again? The same people who always know what's cool: teenage girls.

Specifically, it was the Internet subculture of VSCO girls, named after a photo editing app. The '90s aesthetic got rediscovered and re-imagined by a new generation that spread it all over TikTok and Instagram.

"Young girls are celebrating themselves," Radin says. And part of it is visual: a particular backpack and water bottle, plus a certain outfit that tends to include an oversized T-shirt, a puka shell necklace and a scrunchie, worn in the hair or stacked on the wrist.

Scrunchies joined the wider '90s and 2000s cultural throwback seeping into fashion and pop culture. In fashion, we've seen the return of the fanny pack, biker shorts, mom jeans, dad sneakers, jumpsuits, even Ugg boots. Film, TV, music and even gaming have thrown back with remakes, reboots and revivals.

"I think that nostalgia makes people feel comforted in times of crisis," Radin says. "With such a gloomy aura around politics, the economy, the environment — people are really latching on to objects and clothing items that remind them of earlier times ... that they remember to be simpler, even if they weren't."

This is at the heart of the fashion cycle that churns ever faster in the age of social media.

"Designers love to take the ordinary and make it extraordinary, elevating materials, shifting proportions, exaggerating importance," says Michael Fink, dean of the School of Fashion at the Savannah College of Art and Design. But then, as the season's "must have" gets copied and hits mainstream, "we get bored and move on to the next thing."

At least, maybe, for another decade or two.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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